The remarkable thing about Tortoise isn't just that it's synthesized music's past 50 years into a sound all its own, but that it's done it without conceding anything to traditional pop clichés or song structure. Still, it's a mistake to think of these Chicago pioneers as a group of studio aesthetes and Pro-Tools dweebs churning out soulless musical brain-teasers. Rhythm, texture, mood and groove are the beating heart found within the shape-shifting walls of Tortoise songs and influences: Scratch Perry's dub, Miles' jazz, Neu! Krautrock, Massive Attack trip-hop, Steve Reich minimalism, prog-rock, musique concrète, drum & bass, fusion -- at some point Tortoise has sponged it up.
The band's foraging nature defines A Lazarus Taxon (Thrill Jockey), a 3-CD/DVD box set gathering rare singles, compilation tracks, unreleased material and remixes spanning its career from its 1994 beginning. Discs 1 and 2 don't follow any chronological order, opting instead for a balanced blend of trance rock ("Vaus," "Gamera"), super-processed blasts of electronica ("A Grape Dope," "CTA") and elegiac sound collages ("White Water," "Cliff Dweller Society") that are the audio equivalent of time-lapse photography. Disc 3 is dedicated to the long out-of-print Rhythms, Resolutions, and Clusters from 1994, a continuous 30-minute set indulging the band's remix fix. Formerly the sole purview of club DJs, Tortoise applied the concept to its multi-denominational music approach with far more dynamic and organic results -- Autechre, Mike Watt, Jim O'Rourke and Steve Albini are among those re-sculpting these sonic landscapes. And unlike most DVD throw-ins, this one is essential. There are videos and short films, but the prizes are a seven-song set from 1996 featuring the epic "Djed" as its centerpiece, a hell-bent "Salt the Skies" from the 2004 Burn to Shine series which suggests that it's not as far as you think from punk's fury to Tortoise's passion, and a jazz festival appearance with Chicago free jazz fixtures Fred Anderson (tenor) and frequent collaborator Rob Mazurek (trumpet). It's all visual proof that your ears were telling the truth; Tortoise is a rock band unlike any other.